Abusive Factory Conditions
While the focus of the post-Rana Plaza reforms has been on factory safety, little has been done to address poor working conditions. In many factories, these remain dire, in breach both of national law and the standards that are often stipulated by the western retailers who buy most of Bangladesh’s garments.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 88 workers from 38 different factories about recent workplace conditions. Nearly all of them identified serious concerns. Though working in very different factory settings, they shared many of the exact same concerns. These can be grouped into three categories. First, many raised concerns about pay and benefits, including not being paid the minimum wage, late payment of wages and bonuses, denial of overtime payments, and denial of maternity and sick leave. Second, the workers complained about how they were treated by factory supervisors and managers, and the pressure they were put under to complete work quotas which included resorting to forced overtime, physical abuse, and verbal abuse that sometimes was of a sexual nature. Third, workers complained about unsanitary conditions in the workplace, particularly drinking water of such poor quality that many refused to drink it. According to a major factory owner in Bangladesh, these complaints are common.
Factory owners want to maximize profits, so they will cut corners on safety issues, on ventilation, and on sanitation. They will not pay overtime or offer assistance in case of injuries. They will not build fire exits or stock fire extinguishers. Many of them treat their workers like slaves. They also pass orders on to subcontractors, who are even less careful on compliance because they rely on these short-term orders. Some of them even employ underage workers. Things are improving since Rana Plaza, but enforcing compliance is a big challenge.
An April 2014 survey of 1508 workers at 150 factories, conducted by Democracy International, found that most of these concerns were widely shared. It found, for example, that 34 percent of respondents said they had been harassed by their supervisors and 25 percent said they had experienced sexual harassment. When asked the main problem they faced, 37 percent identified lack of paid sick leave and 29 percent identified lack of paid maternity leave.
The size and sophistication of garment factories in Bangladesh varies considerably. At one extreme are the flagship, purpose-built factories that employ thousands of workers and have relatively secure, long-term contracts with foreign buyers. At the other extreme are unregistered, back-street workshops that employ dozens of workers and work on a sub-contracted, often short-term basis. There are also many medium-sized factories, employing about 500 workers each. Conditions are worst in the smaller sub-contracting factories which don’t bother with garment brands’ codes of conduct since they do not directly interact with the brands.
Human Rights Watch interviewed workers from all three kinds of factories. They were situated in some of the main industrial areas in and around the capital, including in Dhaka, Ashulia, Badda, Gazipur, Mirpur, Rampura, and Savar. We also met with workers from factories in the southern port city of Chittagong and in Valuka district in the north. According to the workers, most of these factories were making clothes directly for well-known retailers in North America and Europe, some on a sub-contracting basis. With the exception of one factory that had closed before our interviews took place, all these factories continue to operate.
Non-payment or Late Payment of Wages and Benefits
Workers in almost all of the factories complained that managers did not pay wages or benefits in full or on time. This included pay for overtime, maternity benefits, the Eid holiday bonus, and compensation for working during vacations. For example, Nazimuddin, reported such abuses were common at his former factory:
They didn’t give us the yearly bonus, they didn’t us give a yearly increment, they didn’t give us money for earned leave. Basically, the factory management didn’t ever follow the labor law.
A union leader at a different factory said her colleagues were denied the compensation they were owed for working during their vacations:
We were supposed to get one day’s leave every 18 days, but they only used to pay us for a few days at the end of the year. We protested, ‘Why are we getting less than what we’re owed?’ The owners did not agree, but then we went to the union federation and found out that the factory owes us more than we thought. That’s why we decided to set up the union.
As well as not receiving what they were entitled to, some workers complained about late payments. According to Article 123 of the Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006 (amended 2013), wages should be paid before the end of the seventh day of each month. According to a worker at a major factory, his factory’s failure to do so is one of the main reasons why he is trying to set up a union. As he explained it: “The problem is that we all have to pay our house rent at the start of the month and the landlord creates pressure if there is any delay.”
A worker at another factory complained:
The managers say they will pay us on the 10th of every month but sometimes they give it on the 12th, or maybe the 14th, or even after the 20th. Last month we got our salaries on the 22nd. But we still have to pay our rent in the first week of every month, pay for food and send money home to our parents.
Another issue is arbitrary deductions from worker pay. A female sewing operator at another factory in Dhaka described her experience, noting that workers at her factory were under intense pressure to complete orders:
If we are not able to fulfill the production target, they deduct from our salaries. They also deduct our overtime or show less attendance than is true. Sometimes when the management is angry they throw clothes at us. If our male colleagues stand up for us, then the management hires local thugs to beat them up. They also beat up female workers in front of everyone if the production target is not fulfilled, even more now because of union activities.
Workplace Discrimination and Challenges for Pregnant Women
Workers we spoke with from 12 different factories complained that pregnant women at their factories were denied maternity leave or given too little leave. Human Rights Watch did not independently verify the women’s claims but the frequency of the complaints, combined with third-party research by groups like Democracy International, cited above, suggests pregnancy discrimination is a serious problem.
According to the Bangladesh Labor Act, women are entitled to 16 weeks maternity benefit, at least eight weeks of which should be taken after the birth, so long as they have worked for the employer for at least six months prior to the delivery date and they do not already have two children. In cases where they already have two children, the women are entitled to unpaid leave only. Those entitled to paid leave should be paid the average wage they received over the preceding three months, and they should receive it for 16 weeks.
A female worker at a Dhaka-based factory employing over 400 people told Human Rights Watch that women workers there were humiliated when they asked for their benefits:
In our factory, 80 percent of workers are female and they will get pregnant, but the managers are not doing anything about maternity leave and bonuses. When we protested about it, our supervisors used really bad words against us, such as: ‘If you’re all concentrating on fucking, why are you working here? Go and work in a brothel.’
A union leader from a different Dhaka-based factory said she was forced to resign before she gave birth. According to section 50 of the Labor Law, she should have still received maternity benefits:
I was forced to leave when I was seven months pregnant, and then stayed at home for one-and-a-half years. After that I came back to the factory. I know that it was illegal but because I was pregnant there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t argue with the managers because everyone was forced to leave and no one gets any [maternity] benefits. It was really tough for my family as I was the main earner.
Pregnant women should not, according to the Labor Law, do “any work which is of an arduous nature” but a worker in another factory said that “pregnant women are given a heavy load and if they couldn’t do it they are fired.”
A female worker in another factory said that there were protests because “one of the major problems was that we were not getting legal holidays off and even for maternity leave they would pay us for only half the amount they had to. They used to give us an annual bonus, but not for the right amount.” In a third factory, the union asked factory managers to allow pregnant workers to leave for lunch five minutes early to avoid getting caught in the large crowd. But managers refused according to one union representative.
When we raised this issue the managers said ‘whose factory do you think this is? Is it your father’s? These women can look after themselves.’
Physical and Verbal Abuse
Workers in most of the factories interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had witnessed supervisors verbally and sometimes physically abusing people for not meeting production targets.
A worker whose job is to cut fabrics described what happened when his protective steel glove became damaged and he sent his helper to ask a manager for a new one:
The manager told the helper to ‘fuck off.’ When I heard this I became really annoyed, and the helper and I started to argue with the manager. He started to beat the helper because he couldn’t do anything to me. Every worker stopped working and protested with me in front of the owner’s room. He said, ‘If you want to work, go back to your seats. Otherwise leave the factory and I’ll get new workers.’ The helper felt so bad that he left the factory the next day.
In a different factory, one man said he was hit for missing his production target:
One day I was a bit late for meeting my target and the factory manager came and grabbed my neck then slapped me twice in front of my fellow workers. After that he took me to the time card section to sign a blank piece of paper, so that he could sack me and say I had resigned. But I did not sign and never got sacked. I could not protest about it, because anyone who does is fired straightaway.
In a third factory, one that workers said performed subcontracted work for a US company, verbal and physical was also reportedly common. According to one woman worker:
The factory working condition was very poor. Whenever someone missed the target bosses started shouting at them. Sometimes they would also beat the workers. One of the supervisors once kicked me on the back just because I was talking to a fellow worker.
In some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch the abuse was of a sexual nature. Most garment workers are women, while supervisors and managers are mostly men. A worker at one factory, for example, said a colleague was insulted and pushed for not meeting her production target:
The line supervisor put his hands on [her] and used bad words like, ‘You shouldn’t be working here, go and fuck outside.’ He pushed her off her chair and away from her machine. This was just because she had not fulfilled her target and still had some work left over.
Some interviewees said that workers were verbally abused for using the toilet and thus avoided the toilet as well as drinking anything during the day. Sometimes this verbal abuse also had sexual overtones. The woman quoted above working on products being sold to a US buyer told us: “We were not allowed to spend sufficient time in the toilet. If someone stays a long time in the toilet they use foul language like, ‘Did you go to toilet to make love?’”
A colleague from the same factory commented:
Often I am given a target that I cannot meet. But I have to make up for it by working an extra hour or two without pay. We avoid drinking more water so that we don’t need to go to toilet. Spending more time in the toilet means falling behind the target.
A worker at a different factory said that employees would even be denied breaks or medical leave when sick:
They were really tough on us about production targets. If we fail to meet a production target, we are sometimes beaten. If someone gets sick, and asks for a break, they won’t give it.
Many workers complained that because they were given unattainable production targets they were forced to work late at night or on holidays, and were then denied the overtime pay they should have received. Abdul Jalil Mia said he tried to form a union to address these concerns but was fired from the factory.
We wanted the rights that the workers are entitled to. We never got those or the leave time that we should get. We never got national days like 16 December or 26 March. We never got any holidays. We had to work for 12 hours, and on Friday, the workers who worked on the night shift didn’t get paid, it was like working for free.
According to another worker, conditions in his factory deteriorated after the buyer changed, demonstrating how a brand can influence practices:
When Nike was the buyer, everyone was okay. But after the factory switched to another buyer, the owners started making us work later and later – 10 pm. No overtime. Specific production target – if you were not done, you would have to work until it was done, without pay.
A worker at another factory said workers there were forced to work long hours without extra pay:
They made us work for more than 17 hours, even sometimes night shifts for nine hours. But they were not paying us a single Taka extra for overtime.
Dirty Drinking Water and Unsanitary Facilities
A common complaint is that the factories do not provide clean drinking water to their employees. This is in clear breach of the Labor Act, which stipulates that every factory must provide “a sufficient supply of wholesome drinking water.” In one factory that supplies clothes to Canada and the US, workers said the drinking water container was so dirty it once had worms in it. “The water is dirty and smelly so we have to take water from the taps inside the toilets. But we don’t like doing that so have to bring water from home,” one man said.
A former worker from another factory told Human Rights Watch: “One of the main problems I had with the factory was that it was very dirty. One time I even found leeches in the drinking water container, and there was no space [in the factory] to eat so we had to take our lunches and eat in the toilet.”
Another female worker, working as a sewing operator in a factory in Dhaka, said it was filthy. “The drinking water has such a bad smell, it’s not even drinkable. The washrooms are really dirty,” she said.